Breathing God's presence: Proper 17A

The Rev. Mary E. Davis

Proper 17 Year A
September 3, 2017
Exodus 3:1-15
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer. Amen.
I recently learned that the Commandment (to put it in King James English) “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” doesn’t mean what I thought it meant.
Of course, I thought that it meant that we shouldn’t curse using God’s name. And um, that’s exactly what I told my kids growing up. (Of course, they managed to find plenty of other ‘special’ words.)
But in fact, originally, it didn’t mean that at all. The meaning behind the Commandment went much further than that, because originally, it meant that you were not to use the name of God, period. You weren’t to speak it at all. Because speaking the sacred name of God – which in Hebrew is YHWH – was vanity . . . it implied that you knew what – or who - you were talking about . . . and how could anyone, except the Jewish High Priest who only spoke the name of YHWH at special times, know God enough to speak God’s name.
Not using the name of the Lord our God in vain – not speaking God’s name at all – requires real humility on the part of the believer . . . and when you think about it, that’s not such a bad place to start. Humility, when it comes to speaking of God and for God, frankly, seems to be in pretty short supply these days. Still, today, many Jewish people won’t and don’t speak the sacred name YHWH, and when they write, perhaps you’ve seen this, they spell G-D using a dash in place of the O.
But today’s reading from Exodus, the FOUNDATIONAL story of God’s call of Moses and God’s liberation for the Hebrew people, names God. Well, actually it’s the story of God offering his own name, for Moses’ sake, an answer to Moses’ question about who he should tell the Pharaoh sent him. God, through his name in this remarkable passage, becomes relational, compassionate, becomes KNOWN – “I AM WHO I AM,” the text tells us.
But the words, “I AM WHO I AM,” come from an English translation of the Hebrew word YHWH, and they aren’t exactly right. Put more literally, YHWH means “I am who I am becoming.” It’s a name that moves and changes, a verb not a static or definable noun.
And for me, tapping into that God, “I am who I am becoming,” is what my faith is all about. It’s what we are all about. It’s why we were created. It’s why God breathed into us and gave us life. Because just like Moses, we are chosen and called to be a part of God’s becoming, to be a part of the mystery of God.
But becoming part of God’s mystery can be scary. God’s call of Moses terrified him. Moses protests. A lot. And Often. The job of leading God’s people to freedom was too much for him. Impossible. But YHWH, “I am who I am becoming,” persisted. And promised Moses, “I will be with you.” The name of God will always be with you.
I think all of us can relate to the fear involved in answering God’s call. This week in particular, I’ve heard similar stories of fear and protest from friends of mine in Houston. “I can’t do this.” Rescuing family members. Rebuilding which seems impossible. But just like with Moses, YHWH, “I am who I am becoming,” persists.
Even Jesus, in today’s Gospel, is beginning to fear God’s call. He knows what it means for him as he’s heading to Jerusalem. So when he tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” clearly he needs a moment to remember God’s name. Remember and breathe in God’s presence.
And here’s the crux. Because God is as close to us, as present with us, as our breath. Here’s how – it’s the remarkable thing about God’s name. **In Hebrew, only consonants spell the sacred name of God. YHWH. And to say those consonants correctly, you do not close your lips or bend your tongue. But to do this means that in fact, the sacred name cannot be spoken – cannot be used in vain – because the sacred name can only be breathed. YH – WH. YH – WH. Try it for yourself.
This is how we say God’s name, and it’s how we know God is present with us. As available as the air in front of your mouth. As close to us as our breath. Presence which fills our lungs, that reaches us on a cellular level.
It’s not vanity. YH-WH is the first word we spoke when we were born. And YH-WH will be the last word we speak at our death.
And in between those times, God is not some doctrine. God is not a set of rules. God is a verb, a breath, in love with his people, and calling us to become. So don’t speak the name. Breathe it. YH – WH. YH – WH. Amen.